Nonprofits Are Not In A Competitive Business Environment…NOT!!!

Recently the director of a local hunger nonprofit apologized when she let slip her dissatisfaction regarding the fundraising success of another local nonprofit hunger agency. Although her organization is competing for donors somehow she deemed it inappropriate to view this other nonprofit as a competitor. Often such a view results from a misperception that a nonprofit is not in business. It is! Nonprofits are businesses and need to stimulate a healthy competitive spirit when it comes to achieving their mission. 

In the for-profit business sector there is nothing wrong with competition. Indeed, competition is considered healthy. The competitive drive is less prevelant among nonprofit organizations. Often a competitive attitude is considered contrary to the sector’s purpose. Yet one must ask since all nonprofit’s have a mission of doing good shouldn’t each want nothing but the maximum impact? Without wishing failure on other organizations the fact is nonprofits are in the fundraising business and are competing for support.  Given limited resources not every organization is going to gain an equal share of these resources. So striving to be the best is achieved by fostering healthy competitive attitudes and behaviors in the nonprofit business to help reach its business objectives and goals. Striving to be the best needs to undergird all nonprofit action from acquiring donors to service/product delivery.

Again if a nonprofit believes its business objective is important and makes a difference in the world why wouldn’t it want to be the best at what it provides!  In the for-profit sector a local pizza restauranteur wants to provide better pizza and service to its customers than the shop around the corner. Don’t you think every time a Domino’s pizza delivery vehicle passes by the window of a Papa John’s the Papa John’s franchise owner doesn’t feel a little irritated this was not one of his or her deliveries? You bet he or she does! Nonprofit’s need to hold similar views. Each is competing in a marketplace to secure limited and important resources to produce their product or service. A similar competitive attitude is especially important in the nonprofit sector since the demand for donor dollars increases every year in the sector.  It is naive and limiting to operate otherwise.

Nonprofits who instill a healthy competitive attitude in their professional staff and volunteers will gain an edge on other nonprofits since most nonprofits do not take advantage of this important organizational variable. Sadly, many nonprofits organizations are just showing up for the ball game, accepting that they are not playoff contenders, not believing they are operating in a competitive environment. Some believe that doing good precludes operating with a competitive spirit (Doing Good is What Really Matters … Not!). This behavior undermines success. I say don’t get in the game if you do not want to do your best!

A competitive business spirit among nonprofits will result in better outcomes and a more efficient delivery of services within the sector. The market will reward those organizations who do better. And a more efficient exchange of goods and services will increase the sector’s impact.  This is required if the nonprofit business sector wishes to fulfill its important role in meeting human need.


Volunteers Must Not Be Treated Like Professional Staff … NOT!!!

Recently a nonprofit colleague commented on a volunteer who was not delivering on their commitment.  Time was being spent dealing with the volunteer’s poor performance, or lack thereof, resulting in lost production.  This situation is very common in the nonprofit world. However, the case is not that unproductive volunteers are wasting valuable nonprofit resources. Rather valuable volunteer resources are being wasted by nonprofits!

The nonprofit sector owes a tremendous credit to volunteer contribution. Indeed, most nonprofits are started due to the driving spirit and effort of volunteers. Many nonprofits still depend heavily on volunteers to deliver and achieve their goals. A recent dollar value of volunteer’s contributed services in the nonprofit sector was estimated at over $193 billion! A significant amount.

Volunteer contribution is a double-edged sword. Without diminishing the important role of volunteers a nonprofit eventually must professionalize if it wants to increase impact. By needing to professionalize I mean growing nonprofits require full-time experienced staff to direct operations. I also mean nonprofits need to view and manage volunteers professionally. The bar must be raised on what is expected from volunteers and on the management of volunteers. This includes respecting and treating volunteers with the same intention as the organization cares for professional staff. 

Unfortunately all to often in the quest, or shall I say panic, to recruit volunteers nonprofits are not fully upfront regarding the contribution needed. What perspective guides this behavior?  Typically there exists the attitude that since the volunteer is freely donating and not being paid for their time or talents their commitment is more fragile than that of professional staff. Thus the nonprofit soft sells the actual commitment required due to the fear that revealing too much would overwhelm the prospective, non-paid volunteer.

Some nonprofits recruit volunteers like AmWay in years past recruited prospects. AmWay’s strategy was to invite prospects to a home gathering with friends and not reveal the real purpose of the meeting. The real purpose of the meeting was to recruit the invitee to be an AmWay distributor.  Similarly, fearing a “no” answer to the ask, nonprofits often resort to a watered-down recruitment strategy. Indeed, there is often an apology in the nonprofit’s volunteer ask.  The essence of this ask is kind of  like, “We need your help but if you say yes we won’t require too much of you since you are ‘just a volunteer’.”  This perception of volunteers diminishes their role and contribution. Nonprofits that recruit volunteers with this attitude subtlety and sadly lower their expectations of the volunteer’s contributions. The result is lost production, misspent resources, and mission compromise.

What is required is a change in the recruitment, training, and management of volunteers. A few changes include:

  • Full Disclosure – A prospective volunteer should be told all that is required and  expected to fill a position. This includes full disclosure regarding a volunteer’s time commitment since this is the core opportunity cost metric by which most volunteers value their commitment.
  • Clarity – Volunteers should be recruited to fill “job” positions with specific expectations and requirements. Calling these roles jobs clarifies their contribution.
  • Compensation – Volunteers should be compensated just like professional staff. The only difference is the medium and type of exchange. Volunteer’s return are the affirmation of the values which directed each to offer their time and talents. A key is making sure there is a direct link between the job task, the mission, and their values. Helping the volunteer to see how his or her work is making a difference is the minimal payback expected for their contribution.
  • Planning – Boards and staff must not outpace their resources in their program planning.  All too often program plans do not budget the amount of volunteer staff jobs needed, including the resources required by professional staff in managing volunteer staff.
  • Performance Improvement – Like professional staff, volunteers can be given performance evaluations. As noted above, volunteers must be recruited with their specific talents in mind to fill a job position which helps achieve the mission of the nonprofit. If their participation is not specific how can their contribution be valued, measured, and connected to their mission and values? Adding an annual performance appraisal to a volunteer’s specific commitment will help create and maintain a common focus to their effort. It will also provide valuable feedback to the nonprofit staff and board regarding their work.

When nonprofits respect volunteers by treating them as valuable assets, like professional staff, production will become more effective and additional resources will be developed.